By Brian Ronning:
For years there has been talk about retiring the A-10 Thunderbolt and transferring its close air support (or CAS) mission to another airframe. It seems like that talk gets louder come appropriations time. The threat of retirement seemed very real this year as the Pentagon has been forced to face the ever increasing costs of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) by looking for areas to make cuts. The A-10 is a ripe target for such talk. After all, it is really just a single mission aircraft that first entered service back in 1975. Despite this, however, the A-10 has survived the chopping block with a new sustainability contract with its retirement pushed out until 2022.
The Air Force and Pentagon have been forced, under pressure from Congress, to develop multi-role missions for all their combat aircraft. The F-15 was originally developed as an aircraft interceptor (as was the F-16 to a lesser extent), but the pressure for multi-role functionality lead to the F-15 Strike Eagle and the conversion of the F-16 to an all-purpose multi-role fighter. Even our newest airframes, the F-22 and F-35, are being designed with a multi-role mission in mind. Indeed, the F-35 has gone a step further with variants for the Navy and Marines as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a multi-role mission. There is definitely a time when the use of a B-52, B-1, or B-2 bomber is overkill and a smaller attack package is warranted. That is when the multi-role fighter-bomber is perfect for the job. This is where the cards are stacked against the A-10.
The Thunderbolt has a very specific mission. It is designed to provide close air support to the troops on the ground. This means flying very low and very slow to take out immediate threats to ground troops with either it’s 30mm GAU/8 Gatling gun, bombs, or guided missiles. It also means staying over target areas for extended periods to provide continuous protection from any threat. To this end, the A-10 is absolutely superb. This is also why pushing any of the other airframes into this role will, in my opinion, ultimately fail. Current plans call for the F-35 to replace the A-10 in the close air support role. While this is a better choice than the earlier calls for the F-16 to take over, I think we can still do better.
According to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 website, www.F35.com, the stealth characteristics of the JSF allow it to enter the combat airspace undetected by radar and strike with internally mounted munitions from farther away. It is also able to quickly switch to air-to-air to engage airborne threats. These are two areas the A-10 does lack, stealth and air-to-air engagement. The A-10 does have a few things going for it that can’t be dismissed in any head-to-head comparison.
First, the gun. A 30mm Gatling gun, center mounted to minimize the firing effects on flight stability, with rounds capable of penetrating any armor. Second, are the 11 weapons stations. This gives it the ability to carry a wide variety of munitions to the fight, thus making it more flexible in target engagement. Third, it’s low airspeed. The Thunderbolt can use its airspeed to rapidly engage multiple threats in a single pass through the combat zone while avoiding friendly assets. It can do this without modification to the engine configuration (as would happen with the JSF), thus reducing the pilot workload in the cockpit. Fourth, and maybe most important, is the titanium “bathtub”. An armor plate, if you will, designed to protect the pilot and critical systems from exposure to ground fire.
The A-10 has seen its share of action, going all the way back to Desert Storm in the early 1990’s. In fact, it is still proving itself in combat today in Iraq and Afghanistan. I do believe it is time for the Air Force, the Pentagon, and our congressional leaders to realize that the close air support is as special a mission as our nuclear deterrent and that as we look at modernizing our combat aircraft, we keep it specialized.
Since the Defense Secretary has pushed the A-10’s retirement out at least six years, and knowing how slowly the government’s procurement gears turn, I believe we now have the opportunity to do this right. Let’s begin looking at designing a new A-10, one with all the advantages of modern avionics and on board defense systems while still maintaining all the current advantages. Utilize modern aircraft engines which are more fuel efficient, giving it more time over target. Install modern avionics and attack systems to better employ the modernized weapons increasing precision of attack. Keep the high number of weapons stations to bring more variety to the fight. And above all else, maintain that protection for the pilot– for without a pilot, an aircraft is useless.
Six years to design, test, and employ a new close air support aircraft. I think this is a challenge worth taking on.
Brian Ronning is an OpsLens Contributor and retired Air Force Veteran.